To Answer, When Compassion Knocks

September 1, 2014
Charlie Hallisey
HDS professor Charles Hallisey / Photo: Kristie Welsh

You're walking in the country and you fall into quicksand. You feel yourself being sucked under and panic. You can't walk through it. You can't swim through it. The more you move, the deeper you sink. Exhausted, you finally lay back in despair.

"I’m going to die here," you think. But at the moment of surrender you stop struggling and realize that quicksand is mostly water. Your body can float. You're saved. Welcome to your first lesson in Charlie Hallisey's class on Buddhism.

"The Buddhist idea is that the world is like quicksand," says Harvard Divinity School's Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures. "The fact that we perceive it in one way and then try to achieve our ends in that wrong perception dooms us. But there's another realm of possibility that's right next to us all the time."

Hallisey's ability to help HDS students see new possibilities in ancient texts earned him the School's Outstanding Teacher Award in 2014.

A scholar of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Hallisey teaches courses that include Buddhist Ethics, Introduction to Buddhist Narrative and Story Literature, and Introduction to Buddhist Scriptures.

Although many of his students come to class with little knowledge of Buddhism, Hallisey says that his biggest challenge is often students who have had some or even a lot of contact with the Buddhist tradition.

"If you come to class and say, 'Well there's a Buddhist text, and it's supposed to say this because it's Buddhist,' there's going to be a lot of bad reading and stale thinking."

In response, Hallisey takes a different approach to the texts he explores with his students. We don't know what a scripture is," he says, quoting the Harvard scholar of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith. It's an odd thing to hear from someone who teaches courses that fill the requirement for scriptural interpretation at HDS, but Hallisey says that this approach is the central organizing principle of his classes.

"Scriptures are not texts, because texts become scriptures in combination with a person and the experience of transcendence," he explains. "Moreover, a text can be scripture for me today and not tomorrow. So my courses often approach scriptures as problems we really don’t understand. We don’t know what scripture is, but we can learn together."

The way that Hallisey works with students is still heavily influenced by one of the teachers of his first courses in Buddhism. A second-year undergraduate at Colgate in the 1970s, Hallisey was surprised when one of the class's co-leaders, a man from Sri Lanka, assigned almost nothing to read about the history of Buddhism. In fact, the Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart was the author of the course's main text.

"Mahinda Palihawadana was just really unusual," Hallisey remembers. "What I realized looking back was that he was teaching about Buddhism by avoiding all sense of the exotic. He wanted us to see that it was just about trying to understand ourselves. That stuck with me, like a little refrain: I don't want to only learn about Buddhists; I want to learn from Buddhists."

The experience led Hallisey to Harvard Divinity School, where he got his MDiv in 1978, then eventually to the University of Chicago for his PhD.

In the early 1980s, Hallisey's research took him to Sri Lanka for two years. It was there that he had an experience that helped him understand the Buddhist perspective on ethics. He saw a woman on the streets of Colombo who had a baby and was begging. When he returned some months later, he saw the same woman, but the baby was no larger. He came back again in a year: same woman; same-sized baby.

"So I'm in the area with a friend of mine, a Sri Lankan Buddhist," he says. "We see the woman coming up. And I say to him, 'You see that woman over there? I've been seeing her for the last year and that baby that she's carrying never gets any bigger.' He said, "That baby is rented. It's all for show.' But then my friend took money out of his pocket and gave it to her. When I challenged him, he said 'Look at it. Doesn't that scene break your heart?' I began to see a different way of thinking about the moral person in his behavior. "Yes, I know it's a sham, but it's still the right thing to do."

Hallisey, who often teaches students in HDS’s Buddhist Ministry Initiative, says that one of his greatest challenges is to help students understand this notion of morality. For many of us, ethics is tied to the ideas of choice, individual freedom, and autonomy. We could steal a candy bar from the convenience store when the cashier’s not looking, but we choose not to because it’s wrong. For Buddhists, though, moral action is almost unconscious. Hallisey tells students in his Comparative Religious Ethics course a story to help them understand.

"There was a Protestant village in France during the Second World War that got involved, at great risk to themselves, in protecting Jewish refugees," he begins. "The people who participated were extremely inarticulate when asked why they did what they did.

They said, 'Someone knocks on the door, you open it. You don't think about it. You open the door.' How did they become so good? They said, 'I don’t feel so good. I didn't decide to do anything. I just opened the door.' "

In this sense, Hallisey says, the Buddhist traditions have consistently said that there is a way of reacting morally to the world that is like a mother acting for her only child and it is a way that is always near at hand. To educate scholars and leaders for whom compassionate, ethical action is this reflexive is one of Hallisey's hopes for his work at HDS.

"It's a kind of spontaneousness," he says. "Like when you see a toddler wandering too close to the edge of the subway platform. Even when it's not your own child, you reach over and pull back. And you don't say, 'Oh, let me make a decision here. Should I do this or not?' Someone knocks on the door, you open it."